23 November 2017

Peninsula Sinking by David Huebert

I wanted to preface this review by saying that David Huebert is a friend of mine (and Meghan's). Meghan met him at an event for Western grad students in her first ~3 days at Western while Dave was beginning his PhD. Since then I've tagged along to a number of hangouts and imposed myself on their friendship. With Meg gone, I keep in contact by way of social media and local events to support Dave's new publications. So, the point of this preface is to say that Dave, and his wife Natasha, are friends of mine, but not THAT good of friends that I'd pretend to like his book if I didn't. 

Now that that's out of the way, I absolutely loved this book. I've gone back and read stories multiple times, I have recommended it to countless people, and you can bet this won't be the last time you hear about it on this blog. It is descriptive and honest and real and I am completely envious of how talented a writer Huebert is. It's honestly disgusting. 

Peninsula Sinking is a collection of short stories that take place in the Maritimes. Huebert, being from the Maritimes himself clearly has a passion for his homeland. The beautiful cover art features a gold outline of Nova Scotia and the title itself speaks to some of the challenges facing the province's population. As a Canadian, a short story enthusiast, and an avid reader in general, this book appeals to me on several levels. I mostly bought it to support Dave when he was in London with his publisher Biblioasis promoting it but now that I've read the whole thing in it's entirety I'm already planning to order a few other copies for Christmas gifts.

I  wait in line with all the fans at events for a personal inscription despite my own belief that I'm somehow VIP

The collection opens with the story "Enigma" which was the CBC Short Story Prize winner in 2016 (you can read it online here). It is a beautiful story about a woman named Heather whose horse is dying and she is deciding / waiting to put it out of it's misery as she reflects on her past as a student and animal lover, whale watching with her family as a child, and her personal relationships. As a reader you recognize how all these things connect, and Huebert imposes Heather's dilemma on you, whether you're a horse person or not (I am not). This is the case with all of the animals represented in Huebert's work. For example, I am not a cat person but in one of the stories called "How Your Life" I found myself actually crying over one of the character's dead cats, all because of the way Huebert writes the scenario as though it's your own...

You are a single thought and that thought is a colossal no. You are kneeling on the floor and touching her and petting her and checking gently for the pulse that you already know is not there. You have never felt a sadness so total. You are kneeling in some version of child's pose with both hands on your beloved, unbreathing cat, your body heaving and your lungs skittering and the snow seeming to crawl across your face and you have no idea who you are thinking to but all you can think is let me make a bargain. Let me give this cat all of my breath and all of my blood. let me divide my remaining years in two. You would give everything now, you would sacrifice your very lifespan, to have this creature spasm and stand up and mewl and return everything to normal."

I can recognize and stick myself in this exact same situation. I can imagine it's my dog and want to die. 

"How Your Life" was one of my favourite stories from the entire collection, mostly because it's so relatable, but also because I feel like some of Miranda's (the main character) anecdotes are vaguely related to Meghan's own experiences. For example, it opens with Miranda being attacked by an owl on a run, and the hot butcher from the market comes to her rescue, to her horror. ANYONE who knew Meghan while she lived in London knows she had a crush on the "hot butcher" at the Covent Garden Market. Mostly because I told everybody. One time she was walking home from a movie and treated herself to a fudge brownie for the walk when she ran into the butcher on the street. Huebert has insisted numerous times that his stories are all fictional, but he also told me once that he gets a lot of ideas from stories he hears from others. I am convinced this hot butcher is not a coincidence. The other reason I love "How Your Life" is because it discusses some of the issues that people my age (twenties) face when they graduate and want to live in the Maritimes. It's really hard. Meghan can speak to this a lot better than I can, but I also think this passage sums up a lot of what I've heard from her and her friends: 

When I was living here after my degree, time seemed to stop. Years of idling. Couldn't get it together to go back to school. Applying for 'real' jobs every day and making minimum plus pennies at the coffee shop. Couldn't meet anyone exciting because I knew everyone already."

It's this level of detail and knowledge about the location, the people who live there, and those people's feelings and experiences, that makes Peninsula Sinking so amazing.

Huebert doing a reading at Attic Books in London, ON on the Biblioasis book tour.

My other favourite story from the collection is "Drift" which is about a woman whose brother is in an accident working in a mine. I liked this story so much and was so affected by it because my boyfriend works in a mine setting as well. I think the emotions of the sister, and the way she remembers her brother tugged on a lot of chords for me. My least favourite story was called "Limousines" because I just didn't find it as relatable as the others. It's about a new married couple who live on a dairy farm and it's  just as well written and detailed as the others but I just have no link to that lifestyle.

One thing I love about Huebert's writing is the way he inserts facts that add depth and history to his stories. For example this beautiful passage is from a story about a man whose job is to go in a submarine for extended periods of time and tests missiles:

The song of the humpback whale is always a love song. Constantly evolving within the dialects of the eleven major worldwide populations, the humpbacks' undersea chorus is a perpetual conversation that qualifies as music according to all known definitions. It develops collectively and constantly, an oral tradition that has been evolving for thirty million years. Only male humpbacks sing, and their song is thought to be part of an elaborate courtship ritual, the most complex in the animal world. But even as they sing to impress or seduce female, humpbacks also sing with one another, voices crooning together as they sound their mournful dirge. The requiem rendered all the more lovely to the human ear by this lack of words- the beautiful confusion of a language beyond sense or understanding."

Huebert uses these factual passages the way a director might use fade ins/outs in film to switch between scenes in his stories. While it's common knowledge Meghan and I are obsessed with useless facts, I find these passages to add an extra layer of detail to Huebert's fictional stories. They exist about different elements relevant to the plot, for example there is a similar passage on coal in "Drift" but many do have a large animal focus. It may be worth noting that animals in text play a large role in Huebert's PhD. 

Huebert is a really cool, but also annoying, author in that he is a perfect example that talented writers can be successful with tons of discipline and determination. He's submitted to countless writing contests, published poetry collections, and re-written stories hundreds of times before releasing Peninsula Sinking. "Engima" for example, he re-wrote over and over again to fit into the constrictions of CBC's contest guidelines. He's also incredibly humble and approachable and I know for a fact would speak to anybody who had questions about their own aspirations as a writer. He's very active in the London writing community. 

Huebert and his wife Natasha also just had an incredibly frigging cute baby and to be honest I'm really jealous and annoyed at the entire direction their life is heading... The dedication on Peninsula Sinking is simply, "For Natasha". This is one of the most romantic things I can think of and I'm pissed.

Dave and his new baby Rose 

I HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone, Canadian or not, who likes fiction, short stories, or beautiful books for their coffee tables. It would especially recommend it to any East Coasters. I've already told Meghan if she doesn't get it for her dad for Christmas I'm going to. 


  1. I just read this book, and can vouch for all the good things you've said about it. I was just trying to write about it today and didn't even know where to start. I loved it! And I'm so glad you included that pic with his baby. :)

    1. Isn't that baby so necessary??? Glad you liked it too :)